A rural neighborhood four miles from Oso, Washington was known to its residents as “Steelhead Haven” before a massive mudslide swept through the area on March 22. The cataclysmic event engulfed the tiny neighborhood with a square-mile’s worth of mud and debris, claiming at least 36 lives and 49 homes. Hundreds of rescue workers responded to help despite dangerous conditions, and now ecologists are among their number. According to experts, one of the final victims of the slide may be the Stillaguamish River, which had been the area’s lifeline.
“The river’s extremely important. We just thoroughly love this relatively natural, unspoiled river environment. It’s why we are here,” lifelong angler Bill Best told Rueters. “Hopefully in 20 to 30 years, it will be back to what it sort of used to be.”
The Stillaguamish River is legendary among anglers for its fly fishing opportunities, but recent images show only muddy waters, splintered wood, and a mass of debris from destroyed houses. The ecological damage to the river is still being estimated, although experts anticipate an extreme effect on any Chinook or steelhead eggs and smolt in the river.
“The first couple of days after, it was fairly alarming. There was one day when I would say about 20 percent of the fish we caught were mortalities,” biologist Maggie Taylor told KPLU.
The heavy sediment introduced into the river is suffocating fish and causing damage to their gills, as well as making it difficult for them to travel. There is some optimism among biologists that the fish are coping with the disaster better than expected. For now, the concerns for the river’s health will be taking a backseat to the area’s human survivors and what they have lost.
“You don’t want to be selfish or disrespectful to the lives that are lost so you have to figure out when to talk about this stuff,” said Eric White, Chairman of the Stillaguamish Tribe.
The tribe, which was set to have its annual Festival of the River just days after the 2014 mudslide, has far-stretching historical and spiritual ties to the river. It is expected that the tribe will be using federal emergency funds to restore the river.
It is not the area’s first landslide, and a controversy is brewing over whether officials should have learned more from a similar event in 2006.
“This is the very same mass of rock and dirt,” Tim Walsh, geologic hazards adviser with the state Department of Natural Resources, told The Seattle Times. “It just moved again.”
Walsh added that landslides can occur in the same area over and over again, as is the case with the land surrounding the Stillaguamish River. In fact, the river has changed course many times in response to these sudden mudslides. There have been seven recorded landslides in the Oso area since 1937.
Image courtesy Washington State Patrol